After playing his junior football in Melbourne, Mark Stephens arrived at Chiltern in the early 1980s. The tough as nails rover quickly established himself as a more than handy bush footballer who would go on to play in the Ovens and Murray. He had a brief stint at Corowa-Rutherglen but it was at Wodonga where he enjoyed the most success. Stephens played in the infamous 1990 Bloodbath grand final before returning to Chiltern to finish his playing career and caught-up with The Border Mail's BRENT GODDE during the week.
BRENT GODDE: You played alongside some Carlton legends as a junior at Oak Park in Melbourne?
MARK STEPHENS: I started off at Oak Park and Wayne Harmes and David McKay were my teammates. We won two flags in three seasons.
BG: Have you crossed paths with either of them since your junior days?
MS: My wife is a Carlton supporter and I saw Harmes after the 1979 grand final. I introduced myself and had a bit of a chat with him about the junior days.
BG: You also won a hat-trick of flags with Sunbury in the juniors?
MS: It's funny looking back at the team photos, we had a heap of kids who were 6'4 with beards yet were all under-18.
BG: You made your senior debut for Sunbury as an 18-year-old?
MS: I was a bit on the skinny side and played half and half in the seniors and reserves that year.
BG: I imagine it would have been a tough initiation to senior football?
MS: Opposition players didn't care if you were 5'8 or 6'4, they would still run through you.
BG: You were dropped for the senior grand final in 1980?
MS: I got welding flash two days before the decider so I got dropped to the reserves. Both the seniors and reserves won the flag that season.
BG: You arrived at Chiltern in 1981?
MS: My family relocated to the town after dad bought the local garage.
BG: Your first coach at Chiltern was dual Morris medallist Jack Clancy. How did you rate Jack as a coach?
MS: It's no secret that Jack loved a beer, enjoyed the social side of football and was a lovable larrikin.
BG: Surprisingly Jack introduced a no drinking policy to the club?
MS: We were allowed to have a few on Thursday night after training but if you were caught in the pub on a Friday night you were dropped.
BG: It seemed a good policy because you went into the 1981 finals series undefeated?
MS: We were undefeated but were bundled out of the finals series in straight sets.
BG: It was a fairly big choke in the preliminary final after you led Milawa by 32 points at the last change and got rolled?
MS: It was an unusually wet winter and we literally couldn't train on the ground in the month before the preliminary final because it was knee deep in mud. So we used to train on the netball courts and lost a bit of fitness and got overrun.
BG: The following year in 1982 you were once again undefeated going into the finals?
MS: We had a standout side with all the Lappins. 'Jock', 'Rowdy 'won the league medal, Rick, 'Duck', 'Charlie' who were all gun footballers in their prime.
BG: What are the most Lappins you have played with at one time?
MS: It's funny I remember one match that season there were 14 Lappins on the ground. 13 playing plus one was a boundary umpire.
BG: You went into the decider as red-hot favourites?
MS: We were but the first-half turned into a Bloodbath and there were fights everywhere. I remember 'Rowdy' was a hard but fair footballer and even he was chasing one of the opposition players around which was unusual. He must have done something fairly bad to upset him.
BG: 'Jock' was an intimidating player who could handle himself?
MS: I remember a fight broke out at the other end of the ground and the opposition player on 'Jock' went to go help his teammates. 'Jock' just said 'don't bother' and sorted him out.
BG: You were behind at the main break?
MS: I don't know how true it is but at half-time Milawa's coach instructed his players to 'stop fighting or one of us will end up getting killed.'
BG: Chiltern produced a stunning third term to boot 10.7 to 0.1?
MS: We were a far superior side but couldn't prove it in the first half because we were too worried about fighting and not playing.
BG: Chiltern won the grand final by 74 points and you finished runner-up in the best and fairest behind 'Rowdy' Lappin by 50 votes?
MS: I usually just tell people I finished runner-up behind 'Rowdy.' The 50 votes is a minor detail that people don't need to know about.
BG: Who were the enforcers for Chiltern?
MS: Basically all the Lappins. We had a bloke by the name of Ken Davies who was solidly built and could also look after himself as well.
BG: The Chiltern supporters are very passionate, were they involved in the fights at all that day?
MS: It's no secret the Chiltern supporters didn't mind a barney back in those days. They weren't too bad on grand final day but there were a few nasty incidents against Beechworth during the season.
BG: Were there any reports during the grand final?
MS: Only Peter Lappin. I remember the following season officials brought in the send off rule.
BG: How many weeks did Peter cop?
MS: It was funny at the time. Pete copped four weeks for striking. But he then gave the tribunal a spray for their decision and received another two and had to miss six weeks. It's fair to say Pete couldn't control his temper at times.
BG: Who do you blame for the fights?
MS: I often joke with Ken Wright it was all his fault. Ken umpired that game and was also in charge during the 1990 Bloodbath which I also played in.
BG: The following season in 1983 you followed Clancy to Corowa-Rutherglen after he was appointed coach?
MS: It was a real eye opener for me and Corowa were basically a team that didn't know how to win. It was a very social club and players often joked at training how much we were going to get belted by that week.
BG: You requested a clearance back to Chiltern?
MS: I told Jack I didn't want to be there and said 'fair enough' and let me go back to Chiltern. Jack knew how much I hated losing so he was pretty good about it all.
BG: You end up missing out on playing in Chiltern's back-to-back flag triumph?
MS: I hurt my knee in the lead-up to the grand final. I remember Jack came to watch and asked if I was playing. I said I've hurt my knee. Jack asked if I could walk and I said yeah. Jack then said 'if you can walk, you can play then.' I didn't listen to his advice and had to watch the boys win it.
BG: In 1985 Chiltern got rolled in the grand final after Rick and Don 'Duck' Lappin got reported in the lead up to the finals.
MS: Rick got eight weeks and 'Duck' got four. I have no doubt it cost us a flag.
BG: In 1987 you decided to have another crack at the O&M and join Wodonga?
MS: I got runner-up in the league best and fairest in 1985 and I thought I had another good season the following year.
BG: You were a bit stiff not to win the Baker medal in 1985?
MS: I went to Cairns mid-season and missed five matches and got beat by four votes for the medal.
BG: In 1986 you also just missed out on the player of the year which was voted by the coaches?
MS: First prize at the time was a travel voucher which would have been handy to win.
BG: What was your first impression of Wodonga?
MS: It was the complete opposite of Corowa-Rutherglen. Wodonga were a powerhouse at the time and were in the midst of a golden era.
BG: What stood out to you?
MS: During pre-season you would get to training and do a 3km time trial before training even started. It was just a lot more professional.
BG: Jeff Gieschen was coach of the Bulldogs at the time. How did you rate the 'Giesch' as a coach.
MS: 'Giesch' was an innovative coach and in a lot of ways ahead of his time with his techniques and philosophies. Obviously he had previously played VFL and was a step ahead of everyone else in the O&M at the time.
BG: 'Giesch' never drank much?
MS: I don't ever recall him having a drink, to my knowledge he was a teetotaller.
BG: It proved a memorable year for the Bulldogs in 1987 after they won flags in all three grades.
MS: I played in the seconds flag and finished runner-up in their best and fairest which I was proud of considering how much talent was at the club during that era.
BG: You also played in the Bulldogs' reserves flag in 1989?
MS: I remember the seniors got beat by Yarrawonga that year and how gutted Ernie Whitehead was after the match in the changerooms. Because we had won, I was already about 10 cans deep, I sat beside him and said 'I would love to play in a grand final with you.' It just struck me had much he was hurting and what it meant to him. The following year it happened to come true.
BG: Do you think Ernie would remember your conservation that day?
MS: Doubtful, he was probably thinking to himself 'I wish this dribbler would leave me alone.'
BG: In 1990 you played in the infamous Bloodbath grand final. In the lead-up you had the unenviable task of tagging Yarrawonga ace John Brunner during the finals series?
MS: We didn't have the Telstra Tracker back in those days but I felt like I had run a marathon after the match. In the end I just had to keep holding him and scragging him because I had run out of puff.
BG: Obviously the Bloodbath is still a huge talking point even though it's three decades ago now. You tagged Neville Shaw in the decider.
MS: We were pushing and shoving before the first bounce as you do. I remember he gave me one in the guts and winded me before the ball was even bounced.
BG: It proved to be a taste of what was to follow?
MS: Yeah I got belted by Wayne Pendergast when the all in brawl erupted and got my jaw fractured in three places.
BG: Pendergast denies that he belted you?
MS: He does but you only have to watch the video and I have got a paper clipping of when it happened as well.
BG: You played the whole match with a broken jaw?
MS: I didn't even realise it was broken at the time. The trainers put some tape on a cut on my eye.
BG: It didn't stop you from celebrating the win?
MS: I consumed enough grog in the first two hours after the win to feel any pain. I went to the doctors first thing on Monday morning and they told me it would heal so I just kept celebrating.
BG: How long did the celebrations last?
MS: I went for five days straight. On the Monday we had 'Barrels at Barrels.' We all went around to Ernie Whitehead's and we were sitting in a big circle playing drinking games. There were blokes falling off their chairs and it was only 9am.
BG: That's a big lick?
MS: I didn't have a shower until the Wednesday and had my footy jumper on the whole time.
BG: Who did you rate as the best drinker at the time?
MS: Steve Murphy, I made sure I never got in a shout with the big fella. He was a bad influence on me and loved his bourbon. Murph had an infectious laugh on him and would be the life of the party.
BG: Both sides are quick to blame the other for starting the all in brawl. What's your spin on events?
MS: Lavington's fullback made the ball disappear over the fence so the umpires couldn't restart play. But if you ask Lavington, Wodonga instigated the fights? I've never been able to work that one out.
BG: You returned to Chiltern the following year in 1991?
MS: Yeah I played in two losing grand finals in 1992 and 1993 when Jeff Cassidy was at the helm.
BG: You played alongside a young Nigel and Mathew Lappin in 1992-93 before they were both drafted.
MS: Yeah I played with both their fathers in a flag in 1982 and then got to play alongside the boys as well.
BG: You have got a bit of a claim to fame in that you beat Nigel in the best and fairest count in 1992 when he finished runner-up?
MS: Nigel was only 16 and got drafted at the end of 1993. But I don't mind telling people I beat him in the best and fairest when his name comes up.
BG: Nigel's older brother Nathan could have also played AFL if he had the dedication?
MS: Nathan had the talent and was bigger and taller than Nigel. But I think he was a country boy at heart and just loved playing with his mates in the bush.
BG: Nigel seemed like he never had a football out of his hands when growing up?
MS: I own the garage in Chiltern and every day I would see Nigel with a football, even if he was going to the shops to grab some milk. I never saw him without a football and you would always see him down the ground or in a paddock somewhere having a kick.
BG: In 1994 Ralph Aalbers replaced Cassidy as coach and one of his prized recruits was Wayne Pendergast?
MS: I probably regret my decision but I retired when I heard 'Pender' was joining Chiltern. I just thought to myself how can you play with someone that broke your jaw a couple of years ago?
BG: Didn't Chiltern win the flag in 1994?
MS: That's what hurts most, especially after playing in losing deciders the previous two years. I was usually of the opinion that what happens on the field, stays on the field. But I just couldn't bring myself to play with 'Pender.'
BG: You came out of retirement in 1996 as a 36-year-old?
MS: Yeah 'Pender' had broken down so I thought I would play again.
BG: Chiltern won another flag in 1996?
MS: They did but unfortunately I wasn't part of the winning side. I hurt my hamstring just before finals and was contemplating playing in the seniors the Thursday night before the grand final. I decided to play in the reserves instead and we got rolled and the seniors won.
BG: That was your last match?
MS: Yeah I was done and dusted.
BG: Ironically you and 'Pender' now live on neighbouring farms on the outskirts of Chiltern?
MS: Yeah, you wouldn't read about it would you? We get on alright these days and I still joke with him that he is welcome to come around and watch the 1990 grand final with me whenever he feels like it. 'Pender' claims he has never watched the replay.
BG: How many matches do you think you played?
MS: It would have been roughly 140 at Chiltern and probably 50 senior games at Wodonga and something similar in the reserves.
BG: You had a stint coaching the juniors after you retired?
MS: I coached either the under-14s and under-17s for seven years.
BG: You have also been a long-standing member of the committee and was president for one season.
MS: They couldn't find anyone to be president so I thought I would have a crack at it.
BG: How did you find the challenge?
MS: It's one of the hardest gigs that I've had to do. Trying to get both the footballers and netballers to be part of the one club is not as easy as it seems. Hence why I only lasted a year.